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A litigant's procedural defaults in state proceedings do not prevent vindication of his federal rights unless the state's insistence on compliance with its procedural rule serves a legitimate state interest. In every case, the court must inquire whether the enforcement of a procedural forfeiture serves such a state interest. If it does not, the state procedural rule ought not to be permitted to bar vindication of important federal rights.
During his trial in the County Court of Bolivar County, Mississippi, on a charge of disturbing the peace, the accused's counsel failed to object to the admission of a police officer's testimony regarding what he found during an unlawful search of the accused's automobile, but at the close of the state's evidence his counsel asked for a directed verdict because of the erroneous admission of the officer's testimony. The motion was denied, the accused was convicted, and the conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court of Mississippi on the grounds that the counsel's "honest mistakes" were binding on the accused and that the counsel's cross-examination of the officer before the motion for a directed verdict and his introduction of other evidence of the car's interior afterward "cured" the original error and estopped the accused to complain of the tainted evidence. The accused sought review of the judgment.
Under the circumstances, should the accused’s conviction be vacated?
Yes, a remand was necessary to determine whether accused waived decision of his federal claim when he failed to make a timely objection to the admission of illegally seized evidence.
On certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States vacated the judgment of the lower court and remanded for a rehearing on the question whether the accused was to be deemed to have knowingly waived decision of his federal claim when timely objection was not made to the admission of the illegally seized evidence. The Court held that a litigant's procedural defaults in state proceedings did not prevent vindication of his federal rights unless the state's insistence on compliance with its procedural rule served a legitimate state interest. In this case, the Court ruled that the Mississippi rule requiring contemporaneous objection to the introduction of illegal evidence served a legitimate state interest, but the purpose of the rule may have been substantially served by the motion for a directed verdict; if such were the case, the conviction would not rest on an adequate state ground so as to preclude review of the claim by the Supreme Court. Even if the motion for a directed verdict satisfied the state interest served by the contemporaneous objection rule, the record suggested a possibility that the accused's counsel forfeited his state court remedies by deliberately bypassing the opportunity to make a timely objection in the state court, as a part of trial strategy, thereby precluding the accused from asserting his constitutional claim. Therefore, the Court held that the state should have an opportunity to establish the fact of waiver.